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rgj.com

August 18, 2008

Obama goes on offensive in Reno

By ANJEANETTE DAMON
adamon@rgj.com

Fresh from a weeklong vacation, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama used his first general election campaign stop in Reno on Sunday to deliver one of his sharpest rejoinders yet to the barrage of negative campaign ads from his Republican rival that have flooded airwaves in this battleground state.

Speaking to about 250 supporters perched on wooden picnic tables in the Wooster High School courtyard, Obama said his purpose in the presidential race is to "restore the American dream" to those struggling through the economic downturn.

In a 30-minute speech, Obama sought to lay responsibility for the present economy at the feet of the deeply unpopular President Bush and then convince voters U.S. Sen. John McCain would continue in those footsteps.

"(McCain) ran a negative ad, which is most of the ads he runs, that claimed my economic plan was higher taxes and that it would lead to economic disaster," Obama said. "That is what he said. My plan would lead to economic disaster.

"Well, I've got news for John McCain. My plan is not going to bring about economic disaster. We already have economic disaster from John McCain's President George W. Bush."

McCain has spent significantly on television ads in Nevada, attacking Obama's economic policies, his celebrity status, his tax proposals and his readiness to lead. His most recent ad labels Obama the "tax man."

Obama spent the last week on vacation in Hawaii, his childhood home, leading some of his local supporters to worry he hasn't been swift or strong enough in responding to McCain's attacks.

"I thought that Hawaii trip hurt him a little," said Mario Romero, a Reno business owner and supporter, who shook Obama's hand when the candidate made a surprise stop to PJ &Co. Restaurant on Sunday. "McCain's been out there making all these comments, and I don't think he did enough (in response.)"

But in his speech Sunday, Obama went on the offensive, accusing McCain of leaving the middle class out of his economic plan, which he said gives someone making $2.8 million a year a $500,000 tax cut.

"My plan provides tax cuts to 95 percent of the American people," he said. "If you are making $150,000 or less, you are going to be getting a tax cut under my plan."

Obama's tax plan does include tax increases for those making more than $250,000 a year and would increase capital gains taxes.

The economy is at top of mind for Nevada voters as the state experiences its worst economic downturn in a decade, resulting in lost jobs, a record number of home foreclosures and a struggling gaming industry.

Obama spoke to a crowd of mostly labor union members from a wide array of industries. He spent about 30 minutes answering questions from the crowd, promising them a Labor Department that would look out for the rights of union members and said he would oppose a move to contract U.S. Postal Service routes to private firms.

At one point when an audience member criticized McCain's military record, Obama took the opportunity to stand up for his rival.

"I think his policies are terrible. I think his service was admirable," he said, before continuing his assault on McCain's record.

"John McCain wants to present himself as a maverick," Obama said. "He always says, 'I'm a maverick, I'm a maverick, I'm a maverick.' Let me tell you something, every single one of his top people are all lobbyists for the very special interests that have been dominating Washington all these years."

In response to the speech, McCain's Nevada spokesman Rick Gorka put out a short statement.

"John McCain has always put country over politics regardless of personal or political consequences, which has put him at odds with members of his own party on numerous occasions," he said. "From campaign finance reform, to ethics and education, John McCain puts the needs of the country above all else."

State Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said he was glad to see Obama's new aggressive stance.

"Now with 79 days until the election, people need to know where he stands in comparison to John McCain," Horsford said.

The Obama campaign's decision to hold a small town hall meeting open only to invited supporters drew some fire from both Republican opponents and Democratic supporters.

Gorka accused Obama of "handpicking an audience" for a "safe environment."

"That's in comparison with John McCain who is unafraid and incredibly willing to talk to any voter regardless of party affiliation," he said.

Washoe County Democratic chairman Chris Wicker said party headquarters was inundated with calls from those who wanted access.

"I have to be straightforward on this," he said, nodding when asked if Democrats were angry. "People are so excited about Barack Obama that they really want to see him in person. But knowing Nevada is a battleground state, I know that he will be back in Reno and he'll put on a larger event for people to see him in person."

Wicker said Obama wanted to have a "real conversation" with people, rather than give a speech before thousands. Wicker added that he didn't think that allowing McCain supporters in the event would "add to the conversation because these are concerns shared by everybody."

But he acknowledged the decision may have cost Obama an opportunity to persuade undecided voters by not inviting them to the event.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said supporters were spoiled during the Nevada caucuses, when Obama repeatedly campaigned here before large crowds.

"I think they understand the campaign has moved to a different stage now," she said.